This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).
The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.
Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.
At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.
The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.
Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.
Swimming Pool is an intriguing film which on release in 2003 attracted a lot of attention. It’s now streaming on MUBI in the UK. It proved to be the second of three collaborations between director François Ozon and star actor Charlotte Rampling. It was early in the features career of Ozon who made his reputation first in short films and who has gone on to become a highly prolific director. Ms Rampling is also highly prolific but she began her career in the mid 1960s. She belongs to that small group of middle-class female British actors, born roughly at the same time, who have managed to build careers in both Anglophone and Francophone cinema. Jacqueline Bisset and Jane Birkin are the other two members. There is something about these women that has caught the attention of French (and other non-British) directors and they have been cast on several occasions in roles that question attitudes towards sexuality – almost as if a challenge to assumptions about national types of sexuality is key to their appeal. All three began their careers as models in the early 1960s before moving into films.
In an interview at the time of Swimming Pool‘s release, Charlotte Rampling spoke about the death of her beloved sister Sarah in 1966 and how her grief had affected her both at the time and at various points in her subsequent career and personal life. Working with François Ozon, first on Under the Sand (Sous le sable, France 2000) and then this second film enabled her to experience a kind of abreaction in which she could deal with her memories. In Swimming Pool, Charlotte Rampling’s character is named Sarah as a tribute to her sister. Allied to this, Swimming Pool sees Rampling cast opposite Ludivine Sagnier who at that time was roughly the age of Rampling’s sister when she died. Sagnier was, however, already a very experienced young performer, had already featured in two of Ozon’s films and was touted in some quarters as a new Bardot figure.
The plot outline is simple but the narration is more complex. Sarah is a successful writer of a crime series featuring the unlikely-sounding ‘Inspector Dorwell’. Her small independent publisher (played by Charles Dance) senses she needs a break and suggests that she should use his villa in Provence as it is now off-season but the weather is still good there. Sarah agrees and sets off for for France. We know little of her background except that she leaves behind her elderly father and it appears that she lives in his house. In Provence she finds a spacious secluded house with a swimming pool and gradually she relaxes before Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a young woman who claims to be her publisher’s daughter, appears and moves in, taking the second bedroom. Julie has a series of one night stands with men she brings home. At first Sarah resents these intrusions and tries to block them out with earplugs. But eventually she begins to loosen up and to engage with Julie who has started to use the swimming pool.
From the beginning of the film, Philippe Rombi’s score introduces a score with a Hitchcockian feel, even though nothing disturbing has actually happened yet. In conjunction with Yorick Le Saux’s excellent camerawork and Charlotte Rampling’s performance we know that something is just not right about this seemingly straightforward holiday/writer’s retreat and the tension gradually builds. As well as Hitchcock, I also sense Polanski in the narrative. One neat touch is the crucifix hanging over the bed Sarah uses. She takes it down and puts it in a bedside cupboard. Later in the film, the crucifix will reappear. I was also impressed with the costumes Sarah wears in the first half of the film and the boring food she consumes in the house. The clothes are drab and the food is bland but gradually she becomes looser and her appetites change she drinks more alcohol, she dines out. Amongst the men who appear the two most important appear to be the caretaker, an older man in the village and a younger man who works part-time in the bar-café in the small town. I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way by revealing any more plot details. There is clearly going to be something that happens between Sarah and Julie and it is going to be key to follow what happens to Sarah’s writing as she ‘loosens up’. Sarah writes what appear to be police procedurals but she and John have discussed/implied that she might write something slightly different. Perhaps she will let her imagination develop in this different environment? Julie is a highly provocative figure, often naked or bare-breasted and deliberately goading Sarah.
The narrative has an open ending which seems to have caused some consternation. After thinking about it for a couple of days I think I’m quite ‘satisfied’ with the ending. It seems to work in several different ways, i.e. several different readings of the film could be made which are equally plausible/implausible. The ingredients of the narrative, the villa, the strangers, the pool etc. are each suggestive of genre elements and there are plenty of precedents. There is a famous French film with a similar title, La piscine (1969) which shares many of the same genre elements – the writer, the drinking, the pool, the sex etc. – and which incidentally has a young Jane Birkin in a secondary role as the daughter of one of the three main characters. There are many others too. A swimming pool, sunshine and a secluded house is the perfect location for this kind of film. The various cinema viewing classifications for the film are interesting – ‘universal’ in France but NC-17/R in the US and 15 in the UK. I don’t think it is an ‘easy’ film for audiences but it is certainly provocative and it made significant profits for what seem to be mainly French production companies (I can’t work out why it has a co-production designation) and Charlotte Rampling’s performance won her a European Film Award. The film was in competition at Cannes – early recognition of Ozon’s status as a director.
Eagerly anticipated, Andrew Haigh’s Berlin prizewinner had a very good opening weekend in the UK at No 10 in the chart with the highest screen average of £4,871 (apart from Secret Cinema’s Star Wars Event). It opened on only 68 cinema screens but also on Curzon online. This weekend it is more widely available, I think, and I’m intrigued to see what happens next. The critical coverage was also very positive and my friend asked “Will this be another King’s Speech?” I understood the question and I think that the reviews may have encouraged older audiences who have enjoyed mainstream comedies such as the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films or Quartet (which also featured Tom Courtenay). If this happens, I think some audiences will be disappointed. They might be surprised in a good way but some of the negative reviews on IMDB suggest that they might struggle. 45 Years is a traditional arthouse film which will feature on Film 4/Channel 4 at some point (Film 4 is involved in the funding). One of the ironies of British cultural life is that the theatre audience which might look down on cinema – and British Cinema in particular – would probably enjoy 45 Years.
Andrew Haigh (best known for Weekend 2011) adapted 45 Years from a short story by David Constantine (see this Telegraph feature). ‘In Another Country’, written some 15 years ago, was inspired by a news story about an 80 year-old man who had been asked to identify the body of his father that had been preserved in a glacier in the French Alps for 70 years. The father was a guide who had been lost in the mountains. In Haigh’s adaptation, Tom Courtenay is Geoff Mercer, a man in his 70s who learns that his girlfriend Katya, who fell into a crevasse fifty-three years earlier in 1962, has been spotted in a glacier after a recent snow melt in Switzerland. This revelation occurs five days before Geoff is due to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of his marriage to Kate (Charlotte Rampling). The short story (I think of only 12 pages?) has become a 95 minute feature. Haigh carefully depicts the impact of the news from Switzerland on Geoff and Kate and traces what happens in their relationship during the build-up to the anniversary party. The crucial change he appears to have made is to focus on Kate and to see the events from her perspective.
45 Years uses a highly intelligent script. Haigh’s mise en scène is rich in symbolic meaning. The two central performances are extraordinary and deserving of the prizes they have won. These three features of the film make it a ‘must see’ and the reception of the film by many audiences demonstrates how much they have enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed the film as well but I think there are issues and questions – partly related to the switch of focus. In an interview with Nick James in Sight and Sound (September 2015), Haigh suggests that he made the switch because there are relatively few ‘later age female existential crisis’ films. He preferred to see Geoff recover from the impact of the news and to see Kate repress her emotions and face a later crisis. He confirmed that as a gay man, he did perhaps favour the wife as an underdog. All this is fine and makes a lot of sense but for me it causes difficulties because of the aesthetic decisions taken by the director.
Haigh uses the house and the local environment (close to the Norfolk Broads – a flat landscape with the tourist boats on the Broads, even in winter) almost as characters in the film. The house in particular actually looks and feels like a house an older couple may have inhabited for many years – rather than a ‘dressed set’. ( The nearest city is Norwich but there are no references to where this actually is in terms of dialogue, on-screen credits etc.) In one sense this could be anywhere. What we do get in the dialogue are little nuggets such as a reference to the Battle of Trafalgar and the hall where the wedding anniversary will take place (Nelson was a Norfolk man and his fleet was sometimes berthed at Great Yarmouth). I’ve seen one reviewer suggest that Haigh is a ‘realist filmmaker’ but this seems to me to be misleading. True, several shots by Lol Crawley as DoP use long takes and a long lens to show Kate as a tiny figure in the landscape in deep focus. But at other times she is shown in shallow focus, isolated in the centre of Norwich with the busy world around her – all out of focus in a fuzzy blur. Haigh himself describes his style as naturalism, arguing for single take two-shots for many internal scenes (i.e. avoiding the shot/reverse shot convention).
Who is Kate? We learn next to nothing about her except that she was once a teacher in the locality (she chides the postman who calls her ‘Mrs Mercer’). What did she teach? What is she interested in? (She plays the piano.) Does she have siblings? Did she have any relationships before she met Geoff, was there a ‘serious’ one? Mostly we learn about Geoff because the central plot incident concerns him. But his background is equally mysterious. What did he do in the plant that he visits for a reunion? Haigh and James seem to suggest that he was a ‘trade unionist’. But most people in large organisations were trade unionists in the 1970s. What skills/knowledge did Geoff have? Was he graduate or a trained engineer? How did he get to have a German girlfriend and to spend several weeks with her in the mountains? Perhaps it’s just me, but without knowing any of this I’m struggling to understand how Kate and Geoff have developed a relationship over 45 years. How did this leftist couple survive in rural Norfolk for so long? Did they travel a lot? Do they have other friends beyond the rather narrow group shown here?
I’m not suggesting that a romance drama needs tons of sociological detail but I do expect a few simple assumptions to make sense. I think I ought to be able to recognise the nuances of social class in a British drama. Perhaps after all it is the marriage of the colonel’s daughter to the working-class lad from Hull which offers the intrigue? That lad is still there in Courtenay’s performance which resonates with those of his 1960s prime in British Cinema. Charlotte Rampling was a heartless upper middle-class trollop in Georgy Girl (1966) but much of her subsequent success has been in European art cinema. In an interview Courtenay (in praising Rampling) suggests that she is much more attuned to the process of filmmaking (whereas he is more attuned to theatre). That might explain some of the tension in the intimate scenes, but it may also be nonsense on Courtenay’s part. I can’t imagine you can make 50 films without getting used to the process. Some commentators have suggested that 45 Years is more like a ‘theatrical play’, a ‘two-hander’. But it is also intensely ‘filmic’. The opening credits are white on a black background accompanied by the sound of an old-fashioned slide projector clicking through a carousel of slides. I tried to work out if the click was edited in time to the changing titles. Later the slide projector will become crucial to the narrative. Associated with this is a scene in which Kate returns to the house to find Geoff with a cut finger and tenderly dresses the wound for him. He says he’s been trying to fix the ball-cock on the toilet cistern. Again, later we wonder if he was actually doing something else. This is one of those moments when it would be good to know more about Geoff. Is he supposed to be good with his hands? 45 Years is a film with star actors – actors with star personae. Geoff and Kate are also Tom and Charlotte. Their star images are composites of the roles they have played and their appearances in secondary circulation. At the end of the film, Rampling as Kate conducts herself in the final scenes with the presence of an Ingrid Bergman. I’m trying now to imagine her as a younger star playing a local school teacher in Norfolk and it’s difficult. I’m going to have to watch the film again but my first viewing is still reverberating. I’m wondering about whether to see it as a melodrama – there are several songs as well as symbolic use of mise en scène. I’m intrigued as to what younger audiences (under 60!) make of the film – please let us know.
The use of Long Shots and the ‘lived in’ house are evident in this UK trailer: